People participate in the annual 4/20 marijuana festival in Denver, Colorado, this year, one of two states were recreational marijuana use is currently legal.
LAS VEGAS — Justin Hartfield isn’t in the business of selling marijuana, but he is interested in helping you get your hands on some grass.
Hartfield is the CEO and founder of Weedmaps, a free Yelp-like service that maps out local marijuana dispensaries in states across the country. Registered users of the site can leave reviews and ratings for different dispensaries with the ultimate goal of helping others find the best weed in town.
Despite the social stigma associated with marijuana use — both medicinal and recreational — business at Weedmaps is booming. The site has more than half a million registered users and accommodates four million unique visitors per month across Weedmaps’ web domains, which includes marijuana.com.
In 2014, Hartfield expects to do more than $30 million in revenue, an increase of more than 20% over 2013 despite the fact that recreational marijuana use is still illegal in 48 states.
Hartfield, 30, says he’s been smoking marijuana since he was 12 or 13, and has smoked “almost every day” for the past 15 years. He got the idea for Weedmaps in 2007 after receiving his medicinal marijuana card (back pain and trouble sleeping). He noticed how many options there were at a dispensary compared to what he was getting from his drug dealer. “My mind was blown,” he told Mashable at this week’s Collision Conference in Las Vegas.
Hartfield is obviously excited about marijuana’s future. He expects other states will soon join Colorado and Washington in making it legal for recreational use, and California could be a big domino to fall in 2016. As the drug continues to gain a foothold across the country, Hartfield even expects doctors will soon prescribe specific strands of the drug to battle specific illnesses.
Mashable sat down with Hartfield to discuss legalization, the stigma surrounding it, and his high hopes for the future of weed in America. Below is an edited version of our conversation with Hartfield.
Q&A With Justin Hartfield, CEO of Weedmaps
Mashable: What do people say when you tell them what you do? Have you had some good reactions from people?
Hartfield: [Laughs] Typically that’s my favorite part of the day depending on who’s asking. I’ve had some people literally turn around and give me the cold shoulder, which is like ‘wow.’ That was pretty intense. I’ve had people tell me they like our business model but we’re destroying society. I’ve had investors say that. But typically for the most part, people are like, ‘Oh my god, that’s awesome.’
You started Weedmaps after discovering dispensaries were better than your drug dealer. Why? What are the benefits?
Number one is quality. The quality tends to be a lot better, and selection essentially is better. My drug dealer, he had good marijuana and then he had the bad stuff. These retailers, they’ve got so many different varietals just because they can do more business. The margins are [better] and they have more buying power and for all those business reasons, they are able to get better product into their systems. At the end of the day it’s all about the product. The product speaks for itself.
Will legalizing marijuana really put drug dealers out of business, or will it simply force them to do more aggressive things to make money?
I think we can look at alcohol as a really relevant example of this. Alcohol was legal and then there was a prohibition and it was totally illegal. That’s how the mob formed, when alcohol was [prohibited]. And then we saw people making bath tub gin and really unsafe, highly potent drugs.
I think that’s what’s happening right now — that’s the current state of marijuana. Are there still moonshiners? Sure. But [most] liquor sales now are done legally, and I think it’s going to be the same with marijuana [once it’s legalized].
What about the stigma surrounding marijuana - it’s still not an acceptable activity for most people. How are you working to crush that stigma?
Why is there a stigma in the first place? Government propaganda. Throughout all these years it’s just kind of been passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately, their propaganda has misled a lot of people.
I think now, especially over the past decade since the Internet has really risen, people can do their own research. I think it’s changing people’s perspectives. At Weedmaps we changed our branding and we’re trying to be really inclusive by making marijuana a really happy, fun medicine. That’s why our logo’s a smiley face. That’s what happens after you smoke - you can’t help yourself, you have to smile. We want to be on the forefront of changing that opinion. We’re professionals and we smoke weed all the time. You can do both now in 2014.
You guys create content, too. Why?
We own marijuana.com. It’s a big part of our content push to onboard people who are not familiar with marijuana and just tell them about it. Here are the facts, and not from the government. We’re doubling down on content. Content is key. It’s just so important to educate people because there’ve been so many lies and so much propaganda people just don’t know what’s true.
What are the negative effects of legalizing marijuana? Besides an increased risk of people smoking and driving.
I know marijuana is the safest, most therapeutic drug on the planet. I don’t see a problem getting a safe, non-toxic medication out there to more people. Now, there are concerns about DUI, but it’s already illegal. There are already laws on the books making it illegal and I don’t encourage or recommend driving under the influence. Other than that, I don’t see any public safety concerns. In fact, I see the opposite. I see people who are addicted to heroin, painkillers, alcohol switching over to marijuana. It would make a huge quality of life improvement.
Despite your somewhat unique subject matter, you’re a tech entrepreneur. Walk me through some of the challenges you face simply growing your business.
We face the same challenges every internet startup goes through, but we have the added ‘bonus' of having this giant legal framework to deal with. Hiring is one of the most difficult things that we do because we’re competing with companies like Google and Facebook, but also because
a lot of skilled employees don’t want to put our company’s name on their resume.a lot of skilled employees don’t want to put our company’s name on their resume.They think about what’s going to happen after they leave our company and it’s like, ‘oh no, is my new employer going to think I’m a stoner because I worked at Weedmaps?’ So [we deal with] the typical stuff startups go through. It’s just a little extra when your name is Weedmaps.
You don’t actually sell weed, but some people assume you do. Has the government ever reached out to you under the impression you are breaking a law?
Knock on wood, the government has never reached out to us in that capacity before. It’s just a perception from a lot of people, and even investors. They’ll ask, ‘How do you guys make so much money just selling weed?’ No, no, no! It’s just advertising and moving pixels around the screen.
Marijuana is only legal [recreationally] in two states right now. Where will be be five years from now?
Well, I know Oregon and Alaska are going to have full adult-use legalization on the ballot this year, and Florida will have a full medical marijuana program this year on the ballot, too. So those are going to be huge. In 2016, California is going to have a legalization bill on the ballot for voters. That’s expected to pass. So I think when California goes legal in 2016, a lot of other states are going to follow suit shortly afterwards. I think the way California goes, so goes the rest of the country.
Could it hurt your business if this becomes mainstream? I assume there will be far more competitors.
You’re right in that, if it were fully legalized right now, there would be giant, well funded companies like Yelp and Google probably trying to get in [on the review business]. But I wish it were legalized today. We want to see the end of marijuana prohibition. Even if it was over tomorrow, I think we could compete. We know more about the plant and love the plant more than anybody else. We really specialize in this.
How often are people getting medicinal cards for recreation use? Is it as common as people think it is?
Yes. Any casual trip to the Venice Board Walk in LA and you’ll see guys with sandwich boards saying '$20 Recommendation' with an arrow pointing upstairs. It seems pretty damn easy.
Do they need to crack down on that?
I think they need to legalize it. It’s kind of a joke right now.
Have you tried to go to other parts of the country with your message? How about states in the South?
The South ain’t ready for what we’re preaching, brother. [Laughs] We did try to go to New York to Times Square and take out a big billboard on the CBS Super Screen and they rejected us at the last minute. It’s happened before. We’ve tried to give lots of money to advertisers and at the last minute they’ve rejected our money. It is disheartening that it’s 2014 and we’re still dealing with sh*t like that, but that’s fine.
At the end of the day it just gives fuel to my fire. I love the haters. Bring ‘em on.